Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I smashed into a tree - test-driving yoga fitness in the big mountains

I've been doing nothing but yoga for the past year or so. This weekend, I went snowboarding with friends who are way better skiiers/boarders than I am, so I really had my limits pushed. For those who are not familiar with downhill skiing and snowboarding, the appeal of such a sport is similar to the adrenaline rush obtained from car or motorcycle racing, except you need to balance your body on either one or two pieces of waxed wooden/fiberglass boards with metal edges. There are people who ask me why I love snowboarding so much. Well,

1) I love nature.

2) It's fascinating that I can go from top to the bottom of a mountain, thousands of feet high, in less than an hour, simply by strapping my feet to a piece of wooden board. It's a mind-blowing concept.

3) Even though gravity does most of the work in bringing me down the hill, different types of terrains and snow textures make it infinitely challenging to stay upright on the board. Incredible balancing act is required; strong knees and legs are needed to maintain control of the board; and for someone like me who falls a lot, having to constantly push myself back up to standing makes snowboarding a full-body work out :)

Spending a day on the snowy mountain makes me feel so blessed to be me!

Here are my thoughts regarding how much yoga has prepped me for this snowboarding season:

1) Yoga has helped strengthen my arms and core so that even though I fell about a million times a day, I could still manage push myself upright from the ground whether I had my ass on the ground (Purvottanasana anyone?) or my face on the ground (chaturanga and vinyasas in general). I definitely noticed an improvement from previous years of snowboarding, where I would have no strength left to push myself back up in the latter half of the day.

2) Ashtanga yoga asks us to back off with the intensity when we have to start mouth breathing. The purpose of breathing in and out strictly through the nose is to generate prana. The bandhas serve to "lock" the prana and minimize their escape from the body. It makes me feel revitalized rather than exhausted after each yoga practice.

Yoga serves to strengthen and heal the body, so it does provide us with a base fitness good for health and longevity. However, out on the big mountains, where it's me + waxed board versus mother nature, ashtanga practice alone doesn't quite provide enough cardiovascular endurance for me to keep up with my friends. When I got stuck in deep powder, I was mouth-breathing pretty heavily when trying to dig myself out, and my heart was pounding way harder than it has for a long time (imagine you're a few feet deep in the snow, trying to push yourself back up to standing, except no matter where you push down, your arms go right through a foot of snow).

Conclusion: Yoga is great for overall mental and body health, but if I want to keep up with my ultra-fit friends and continue my recreation of going down tall snowy mountains using a wooden plank as a transportation device, I will probably have to step up my exercise/fitness scheme this summer.

3) I usually stay on wide groomed runs and avoid trees for fear of running into them. However my skilled friends love to work on their maneuvering skills within trees. To push my limits I decided to join them, and lo' and behold, I smashed into a tree on the last day (luckily not the first day). Of all the ways you can smash into trees (head-first, face-first, body-first, shoulder-first, hip-first,  jamming my arm into the tree, etc), all of which could result into a broken body part or an ugly surface bruise, my collision was quite optimal - my right outer thigh was charlie-horsed by the tree. Given how meaty and fatty my thighs are, it really was the safest way to collide with a tree (not that I did this on purpose).

If I weren't so into yoga then it would have just been a painful experience. But now that I'm obsessed with internal sensations of the body and an anatomy geek, I found it to be a fascinating learning experience.  My friend asked me if I was okay. Unwilling to admit weakness, I claimed I was fine, and somehow managed to make it all the way down the mountain by putting most weight on my left leg (luckily the dominant/steering leg). There was a dull pain when I first collided with the tree, and then I found my body took over some of the controls. I tried to figure out what movements would be okay and what would aggravate my right thigh, and turned out that besides putting weight on it, twisting my body to the left would make it painful. Luckily going down the mountain goofy (left leg back, right side of body pointing downhill) does not require me to twist my body to the left at any point. Nevertheless, I could feel my muscle fibers (especially in the left leg) automatically acting differently trying to avoid full engagement of the right quadriceps. When I finally took off my snowboard at the end, I noticed I couldn't even walk properly without a limp (straightening the leg completely or bending it more than 90 degrees would aggravate pain). Don't worry, I was still capable of limping my way to the car, carrying all my snowboard equipments, and my friends barely noticed it.

Ashtanga will not be possible for a couple of days but hopefully I should be back in (yoga) business by the end of this week. I'm thankful for my friends for encouraging me to push my limits; otherwise I'd probably still be stuck on beginner green/blue runs never attempting anything more difficult. I'm thankful I have a healthy body to try out incredible/crazy activities. I used to wonder why I push myself so hard. Now when I get sick or injured, I am reminded to live to my body and mind's full potential, because I can. If I were born a really sick person, I'd live my life to the fullest of the sick body's capability, so why hold back and be safe when the healthy body is capable of so much more?  There will no doubt be a point in life when I will not be able to attempt these activities any more, but that time is definitely not now.


  1. ay bendito. at my age it would not be prudent to try the snow boarding other than on a bunny slope. hope you feel bettah

  2. Sounds exciting. I'm glad you are alright. I've never been a speed devil. I'm like the slowest and most cautious driver around. Even when I was doing martial arts, I relied more on catching my opponents by surprise than by sheer speed. So I don't think I'll ever snowboard. But I'm glad you like it.

  3. I hope you heal beautifully. And that it is not to late to apply ice if you haven't yet..

  4. @Arturo, I used to look at little kids zooming down black diamond runs and wishing I had started learning skiing/snowboarding at a younger age. Now I'm just happy I can still afford to run into a tree and not break anything. Not sure how many more years my body can still take this but definitely treasuring the present moment!

    @Nobel, I'm not a dare-devil either. Most of my energy is spent slowing down the board. If it weren't for my good friends I would seriously stick to the green/blue runs and never try anything more difficult. But I feel like my mind opens up a little more every time I'm pushed to try something I'd never otherwise try on my own.

    @Serene, thanks! Icing it as we speak. It's a very minor impact to the thigh muscle that does more teaching (about my body) than harming really :) Can't ask for more blessing than this!

  5. Good luck on the recovery! I found I bounced back fairly quickly, giving credit to being mindful of the various bangs/bruises/weird joint noises that I accumulated and getting back to a yoga practice as soon as possible, modifying as necessary. This season was my first season and had a wonderful time. Of course, I managed to re-injure my MCL that I tore up back over 10 years ago in college on my last run of the season. But I still found myself able to get down the mountain - much the same as you describe, applying some long board surfboard techniques, spending some time going down heel-side, resting as needed, and an hour later made it down from the top.

    During some runs I'd find myself concentrating more on how different muscle engagements would effect my stance/speed/angle of board in relation to the mountain. Sometimes ending up with some spectacular air and resulting fall.

    Where do you usually board? How long have you been boarding?

  6. Thanks Portside! I'm lucky I didn't tear anything. It's already better today. Your descriptions sounds very similar to what I did! I'm hoping for 90% recovery by Thursday but we'll see if my body will heal that fast.

    I've been boarding for over 5 years but I only go a few times a year. I'm lucky I get to go to Whistler, home of the 2010 Winter Olympics :) It's really a waste not to learn to ski or board with North America's top ski resort practically in my back yard. Funny that all the people I go boarding with are people from out of town and so many locals don't take advantage of the gorgeous mountain.

  7. Whistler! Wow. That's pretty sweet - even if only a couple times! Hoping to make it out there for a week next January. :)

  8. Oh dear! I love your positive take on this. Carpe Diem :)

    I've only skiied twice in my lifetime, never snowboarded. Hauling yourself out of the snow after falling for the umpteenth time definitely takes quite a bit of strength. Feel better soon!

  9. @Portside: you should definitely come for a visit! Whistler doesn't always have the best weather, but when it does, it's pretty awesome!

    @SA, I'm a pretty clumsy person. If I don't learn to laugh about it, I should never try to bike, skate, or ski, snowboard, snowshoe, surf, or even drive. A very conscientiousness girl once told me I shouldn't be snowboarding if I have such poor balance to begin with. I think I have much more fun time on my snowboard than she does on her skis even though I fall way more often than she does.